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France Has Changed — And So Has 'Les Misérables'

Jan 11, 2020

The new film, Les Misérables, is not another adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel and it's definitely not a musical. It is set in the same Paris suburb that inspired part of the 19th-century classic, and it is about that neighborhood's impoverished residents. But this film is a modern-day cop thriller — and it's France's entry to the Oscars.

As the new Les Misérables opens, France has just won the World Cup and an ecstatic group of black teenagers is making its way into central Paris. The streets are flooded with people from all backgrounds draped in the colors of the French flag. This is the France the country's politicians love to idealize — a country where people of all classes, colors and religions can feel united under a common French fierté.

But then the scene shifts to the dreary working-class suburb of Montfermeil. It's a place plagued by police violence, ethnic clashes and little opportunity. Lined with high-rise housing projects, factories and dingy kebab shops, it looks nothing like the Paris audiences are used to seeing on screen.

And that's exactly why director Ladj Ly wanted to make this film, his first major feature.

"The film is about the daily misery shared by everyone in Montfermeil," Ly says.

And he means everyone -- from the inhabitants of the graffitied high-rises to the cops who patrol them. The story follows a day in the life of Montfermeil's anti-street crime unit. After trying to arrest one teen, the unit is confronted by the same kids we saw celebrating France's World Cup victory in the first scene — only this time they are throwing stones.

Les Misérables takes place in the suburb of Montfermeil — where Ladj Ly grew up and still lives today.
SRAB Films / Amazon Studios

Many of these scenes are taken directly from the pages of Ly's own life. His family arrived in France after emigrating from Mali in the 1980s. He was raised in Montfermeil, and still lives there today.

Ly says that since the November release of Les Misérables in France, the country is finally being confronted with a problem people have long been aware of but refused to address head on: That immigrants pushed to the city's suburbs are struggling to make better lives for themselves in a new country.

"That's why the film has had such an impact ..." Ly explains. "People may not want to see certain parts of this film, but I'm going to make you see what real life looks like in this neighborhood. I've lived through this."

Director Ladj Ly drew from his own experiences growing up in Montfermeil. "I've lived through this," he says.
SRAB Films / Amazon Studios

That's true for many of the first-time actors in the film as well. Ly and several other established artists started a film school in a nearby neighborhood suburb in 2018.

"Getting access to film schools can be expensive and complicated," he says. "So we decided to give up on other schools and open our own."

Students come from all over France to study under some of the country's top filmmakers — all free of charge.

Director Ladj Ly is pictured following the awards ceremony at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2019. Les Misérables won the 2019 Jury Prize at Cannes.
Petros Giannakouris / AP

Yassine Lassar, 29, is a math teacher who lives in the neighborhood. "For the first time I told myself maybe there's a way to tell our own stories ..." he says. "People whose stories are not heard most of the time."

For Mbathio Beye, originally from Senegal, Ly is providing students like herself with opportunities they never thought they'd have. Beye says it feels like Ly opened a window:

"You know, when the door is not open you have to go to the window? ..." Beye says, "This is what he did ... and now the door is open you can go get in."

But opening windows has also made Ly a target of backlash.

Last month, two right wing newspapers reported Ly was once convicted for taking part in a murder. That was proven false, but another paper later verified that he was convicted of complicity in an attempted kidnapping, for which he served a two-year sentence.

Ly says that, like the teen actors in his film, he's a product of his surroundings and he wants to help them rise above their misère the way he has. He says the accusations are part of an attempt from the far right to crush him ever since it was announced Les Misérables would be representing France at the Oscars.

"Every time we lift our head above water, there's always these same groups that try and squash us," Ly says. "But we're stronger than that."

Ly is proud to be representing France at the Oscars, and he says he'll do all he can to help his country win.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The new film "Les Miserables" is not another adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel. It's definitely not a musical by BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. It is set in the same Paris suburb that inspired part of the 19th century classic, and it is about the neighborhood's impoverished residents. But this film is a modern-day cop thriller. It's France's entry to the Oscars. Rebecca Rosman reports from Paris.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: As "Les Miserables" opens, the residents of Paris are anything but miserable.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, cheering).

ROSMAN: France has just won the 2018 World Cup, and an ecstatic group of black teenagers is making its way into central Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yay.

ROSMAN: The streets are flooded with people from all backgrounds draped in the colors of the French flag.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, speaking French).

ROSMAN: This is the France the country's politicians love to idealize, a country where people of all classes, colors, and religions can feel united under a common French fierte. But then the scene shifts to the dreary working-class suburb of Montfermeil, where these boys spend most of their days.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

ROSMAN: It's a place plagued by police violence, ethnic clashes, and little opportunity. Lined with high-rise housing projects, factories and dingy kebab shops, it looks nothing like the Paris audiences are used to seeing on screen. And that's exactly why Director Ladj Ly wanted to make this film, his first major feature.

LADJ LY: (Through interpreter) The film is about the daily misery shared by everyone in Montfermeil.

ROSMAN: Everyone from the inhabitants of the graffitied high rises to the cops who patrol them. The story follows a day in the life of Montfermeil's anti-street crime unit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking French).

ROSMAN: After trying to arrest one teen, the unit is confronted by the same kids we saw celebrating France's World Cup victory. And they're not smiling. They're throwing stones.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LES MISERABLES")

ROSMAN: Many of these scenes are taken directly from the pages of director Ladj Ly's own life.

LY: (Through interpreter) There used to be this big tower just over there when I arrived here in the 1980s, and that's where I lived.

ROSMAN: Standing on the balcony of his apartment in Montfermeil, Ly describes the neighborhood where he was raised by immigrant parents from Mali and where he still lives today.

LY: (Through interpreter) Forty years later, they got rid of the tower, and here I am still living here today.

ROSMAN: Ly says that since the November release of "Les Miserables" in France, the country is finally being confronted with a problem people have long been aware of but refuse to address head on, the problems immigrants pushed to the city's suburbs face as they struggle to make better lives for themselves in a new country.

LY: (Through interpreter) That's why the film has had such an impact. People may not want to see certain part of this film, but I'm going to make you see what real life looks like in this neighborhood. I've lived through this.

ROSMAN: So have many of the first-time actors in the film. That's why Ly and several other established artists started a film school in the nearby suburb of Clichy-sur-Bois in 2018.

LY: (Through interpreter) Getting access to film schools can be expensive and complicated. So we decided to give up on other schools and open our own.

ROSMAN: Students come from all over France to study here under some of the country's top filmmakers, all free of charge.

YASSINE LASSAR: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Yassine Lassar is a 29-year-old math teacher who lives in the neighborhood.

LASSAR: For the first time I told myself maybe there's a way to tell or own stories, stories of people who are not heard most of the time.

ROSMAN: For Mbathio Beye, originally from Senegal, Ly is providing students like herself with opportunities they'd never thought they'd have.

MBATHIO BEYE: It's just, like, he went to the window, you know? When the door is not open, you have to go to the window, and this is what he did. And now the door is open. You can go get in. You can go make it.

ROSMAN: But opening windows has also made Ly a target of backlash. Last month, two right-wing newspapers reported Ly was once convicted for taking part in a murder. That was proven to be fake news. But another paper later verified that he was convicted of complicity in an attempted kidnapping, for which he served a two-year sentence. Ly says that like the teen actors in his film, he's a product of his surroundings, and he wants to help them rise above their misere the way he has. He says the accusations are part of an attempt from the far-right to crush him ever since it was announced "Les Miserables" would be representing France at the Oscars.

LY: (Through interpreter) Every time we lift our head above water, there is always these same groups that try and squash us. But we are stronger than that.

ROSMAN: Ladj Ly said he's proud to be representing France at the Oscars, and he'll do all he can to help his country win.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.